St. Gabriel School band members meet high expectations

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

The St. Gabriel School Concert Band members raised their instruments and played parts of a song.

They were at one of their twice-weekly practices in the basement of the former convent building across from the school, and the music, to the untrained ear, seemed to be on target.

However, Sister Gail Buckman, SSND, the band's conductor, gently and consistently reminded students of areas where they could improve.

"That's where my crescendo has to happen, right."

"It should be getting softer."

"The cymbal goes 'boom' and we're there."

Sister Gail then followed up with praise as the practice went along.

"Good work, nice."

"Good, that's what I need to hear."

Projected on a screen behind their teacher was the schedule for the band practice plus a reminder: No one rises to low expectations. It's a theme the students hear often.

Leo Ramos, an eighth-grader who plays alto saxophone, is in his fifth year in the school band program. "I like the sound of it," he said of the instrument. "I really like jazz, and the saxophone is a good instrument for jazz."

St. Gabriel's band program leads to other opportunities, he said, such as playing in honor bands. He intends to continue playing in high school.

Playing at the National Catholic Educational Association convention last spring was a highlight. His favorite music to play was a song from "Star Wars."

Leo called Sister Gail a leader who is not afraid to take chances with the performers on difficult material.

Ellie Muskopf, an eighth-grader who plays the flute, also is in her fifth year. Sister Gail pushes students to do better, Ellie said, but we all know "she wouldn't put us through that if she didn't think we could do it."

Next year, Ellie said, "I will miss her because she has helped me through a lot of things and is one of the best teachers I've ever had."

In her second year of being in the band program, Ellie was encouraged to bring her flute outside to show her neighbors. She had fun teaching them and her brother how to play the instrument. Her mother played piano and her dad played drums, but they wouldn't allow her or her brother to play drums, she said with a laugh. Her brother played alto sax at St. Gabriel and now is in the school and jazz bands at St. Louis University High School.

The St. Gabriel the Archangel Concert Band was one of five school bands, the only Catholic school, selected to perform at Powell Hall for the 2015 Des Lee Showcase Concert. Robert Nordman, director of the Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative, wrote Sister Gail after the performance, calling it "a stunningly beautiful performance."

Band participation, Sister Gail said, provides students with sharpened social skills, self-satisfaction, the ability to think on the spot, comprehension and math skills among other things. Music, she noted, is a shared experience with others and a lifelong love.

Some of her former students have continued in music, including Megan Arns, the percussion specialist at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Others have gone into the production side of music, repair of instruments and other areas.

Sister Gail credits the commitment of her school principal, faculty, parents, parish pastor and others. The band program dates to the late 1950s, and Sister Gail has been conducting it since 1996. The school uses SmartMusic, an assessment program which contains more than 10,000 pieces of music and enables students to follow notes on a computer screen when practicing at home. Students can record the music and send it back to the teacher.

The band program has 130 students in fourth- through eighth-grades. Each year a solo ensemble festival is held for the band students in the school. The younger students perform small ensemble and the older students do a solo and an ensemble before a visiting adjudicator. The bands also perform in the community.

The rewards include witnessing the beginning band members advance. Sister Gail told of a fourth-grader who recently told her mother how great it was to hear the first note she played in the band. "You see the joy they have in being able to do that," Sister Gail said. 

>> Sister Gail's specialty

Sister Gail Buckman, SSND, began her musical studies with the piano in grade school. Later taking up the clarinet, she was in band, orchestra, and chorus in high school and now plays as many as six instruments. She received a bachelor's degree in music theory from Notre Dame College in St. Louis, and a master's degree in music education from University of Missouri-Columbia and can play a half-dozen instruments. She is now in her 49th year of teaching, and has been at St. Gabriel the Archangel School for the past 23 years.

Sister Gail also taught in the archdiocese at Our Lady of Sorrows in St. Louis from 1970-77; St. Peter, St. Elizabeth Ann/St. Robert and St. Cletus in St. Charles, 1978-96. She worked at summer band camps in Cape Girardeau and Hillsboro, Mo., and on the staff of the Missouri Ambassadors of Music European Tours. One of her favorite quotes of St. Theresa Gerhardinger, SSND, is "follow the star that has arisen in you, it will lead you to Jesus."

Kelly Slattery, principal of St. Gabriel School, said Sister Gail is "a treasure and blessing to have for our students. She helps them discover talents in themselves that they otherwise would have never discovered or had the opportunity to discover. But she doesn't teach them just music or an instrument, she teaches them really important life skills such as perseverance and hard work ... as well as the joy for music and what that can bring to your life."

The band is a part of a dynamic arts program at the school. To see what the band students accomplish in a short time "gives you goose bumps," Slattery said. 

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